By EDDIE BORGES
The line to enter Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on West End Avenue and 100th Street, on Sunday night wrapped around the block twice. A little before 7 p.m., a rabbi came out to announce that the 1,800 seats in the sanctuary were full. Not one left. The rabbi proceeded to offer a service right there on the front steps.
As she offered prayers through a megaphone, the lines around the block broke up and we crowded in front of her on the sidewalk, quickly spilling into the northbound lane of West End Avenue, then the southbound lane, until we reached the far sidewalk, packing the street between 100th and 101st.
Without a sound, the police closed off the avenue to traffic. Not one driver honked his car horn with impatience.
The rabbi said that over the last day, some had said that they shouldn’t go to temple anymore. What we showed Sunday night is that we will be coming in waves to fill the synagogues no matter what our faith.
My hope is that by the time those twins, whose bris was being celebrated at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday, go to the Torah for their bar mitzvahs, this past weekend will mark the beginning of the end of one of the darkest periods in American history.
I can’t stop thinking about the twins. And all the children.
After hearing the news Saturday afternoon, my immediate reaction was to reach out to my oldest friends, who were the first to have children. They are all Jewish.
That’s because I had the privilege of growing up in central Queens. From what I’ve been reading about Squirrel Hill, in Pittsburgh, it sounds a lot like Jamaica, Flushing and Kew Gardens.
When I was at Jamaica High School, my friend Spyro Karakizis used to say that he might as well join the Hillcrest Jewish Center on Union Turnpike, because he spent more time playing basketball there than at the Greek Orthodox Church where his family belonged.
At Queens College, I served on the board of directors of the Council of Jewish Organizations, and as president of Alpha Epsilon Pi’s second pledge class. My religion didn’t matter. Further, I was in the closet back then — or, I thought I was. I learned years later that everyone knew I was gay. It didn’t matter. In that neighborhood, I always felt safe and loved.
I even had a great relationship with Rabbi Michael Strasberg when he was at the Young Israel of Hillcrest, close to the college on Jewel Avenue. He didn’t choose to minister to people solely based on their faith.
Sadly, this sanctuary in Queens was just a bubble. And it’s been popped by a man who was raised just half a block from the Immaculate Conception, on Dalny Road in Jamaica Estates, where I started school.
I certainly rang the bell at his parents’ door numerous times during my childhood when I was selling candy for fundraising drives at school or, even, UNICEF.
That’s why I’m having a such a problem accepting how a man who grew up in the same multicultural community in central Queens that I did can be at the nexus of hate in the world today.
Sunday, a president was elected in Brazil with a platform to kill the gays. Saturday, the congregants of the Tree of Life synagogue were massacred while celebrating their faith and two new lives. And last week, the Department of Justice announced it was rolling back protections for the transgendered.
As someone who had the good fortune of growing up in this sanctuary-like community in Queens, it behooves me to step up and push back against the hate that was born at our center.
It means I will be joining my friends for Sabbath services this Saturday to show that here in Queens, we will not accept this hate nor will we live in fear.
It means showing up on Election Day to vote against the hate.
And it means holding elected officials, in Washington and locally, accountable for their actions and their leadership — or lack of leadership. If we are going to counter the hate, we need to keep our side of the street clean.
For years, to the dismay of some, I’ve written in Sharpie on the walls across from my desks in various offices and at home: “What have you done today to reduce childhood poverty?” Today, I add, “What have you done today to make a better place for the twins from Squirrel Hill?”